A musical climate where emphasis is laid primarily upon experimentation — discovering a new sound, pioneering a new aesthetic — can lead to a body of music that lends itself to purely intellectual appreciation. And while I’m constantly on the lookout for artists who want to push music into hitherto unexplored territories, rock is an art form that, from its very inception, was meant to speak to the reptilian brainstem, to elicit a physical response, whether to dance, cry, or just scream. In that respect, These Four Walls is an absolute triumph. It’s a simple, unaffected album that gets by on the twin pillars of pop music: good songwriting and a passionate lead singer.
Emerging from the same scene as countrymen Frightened Rabbit (hilariously dubbed [“misery pop”->http://www.tinymixtapes.com/Frightened-Rabbit] by TMT writer Cor Limey), the band has been garnering favorable reviews from all over. When I first heard their name, my right eye twitched seven times in its socket, so sure was I that this was going to be some god-awful cutesy teen punk band. And while We Were Promised Jetpacks certainly wear their hearts on their sleeves, their music is mature and intricate enough to put them in another class entirely. The band is almost the apotheosis of Scottish indie rock since the mid-’90s. Their brooding, melancholic atmosphere belongs as much to their current scene as it does to Belle & Sebastian’s more somber tunes; their angular, post-punk riffs smack of some of Franz Ferdinand’s finer moments; and, good lord, is that Mogwai I’m hearing in those scattered little post-rock embellishments?
But what really sets WWPJ apart from any other band sharing their aesthetic is Adam Thompson’s dramatic vocal performance. He manages to convey a potent mixture of power and vulnerability, and he can stay in-tune even when yelling at the top of his lungs. Album opener “It’s Thunder and It’s Lightning” is an excellent foretaste of the album as a whole. A lonely bass and guitar figure begins the song in Interpol territory, accompanied by a few muttered phrases from Thompson. The song picks up speed as more elements come into play — an additional guitar, some pattering drums, tinkling percussion — only to slam to a halt following a short instrumental bridge. Thompson repeats over and over, “Your body was black and blue,” his voice rising with each iteration and the music swelling behind him until they seem locked in some kind of death spiral, like two rutting eagles too ecstatic to disentangle, leaving the song to come crashing down in a series of violent rhythmic explosions, courtesy of drummer Darren Lackie and guitarist Michael Palmer.
The rest of the album shows similar dynamism and melodic control. Songs like “Roll up Your Sleeves” and “Moving Clocks Run Slow” snap back and forth between chord progressions like it’s as easy as breathing. While Thompson shows the same predilections for failed romances and disintegrating relationships as his Glasgow peers, the sprightliness of the music and his intensity as a vocalist make These Four Walls an album more suited to drunken shout-alongs with friends than solitary moping. In fact, the only song on the whole album that falls flat is the acoustic dènouement, “An Almighty Thud,” which alone feels dreary and turgid among so many whip-smart pop gems.
We Were Promised Jetpacks are not reinventing any wheels or pioneering any bold new sounds. They are, however, making absolutely brilliant music within a familiar idiom. These Four Walls is a consistently exciting album full of memorable songs, and one of maybe five records this year so far that I would recommend unreservedly.
1. It’s Thunder and It’s Lightening
2. Ships with Holes will Sink
3. Roll up Your Sleeves
5. A Half Built House
6. This is My House, This Is My Home
7. Quiet Little Voices
8. Moving Clocks Run Slow
9. Short Bursts
10. Keeping Warm
11. An Almighty Thud